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The Justice and Electoral Select Committee is still deliberating on the Alcohol Reform Bill. They say it’s proving and enormous challenge and the deadline for reporting back to Parliament has been pushed out from June until the end of August.

The official line for the hold up is that it is taking longer than expected to analyse the thousands of submissions received. Others suggest, however, that the alcohol industry has been successful in delaying the progress of a bill they very much oppose.

Despite our widely acknowledged problem drinking culture, they have consistently argued that not much really needs to change. In fact, listening to their submissions was a bit like watching Groundhog Day, with much of their obfuscating rhetoric bearing sinister similarities to that used a decade ago by their ‘brother in harms’, the tobacco industry.

Personal responsibility

A recurring theme in the submissions by the likes of the New Zealand Retailers Association, the Hospitality Association and Diageo NZ is that the bill fails to encourage personal responsibility. They said, instead of cracking down on the industry, alcohol abuse would be better addressed through education and targeting the minority who are the problem.

This sounds great on the surface because everyone agrees with personal responsibility. However, beneath it lies the same old rhetoric used by the tobacco industry emphasising personal choice, while they peddle an addictive drug that takes away freedom to choose.

The fact is we have more than 700,000 adult problem drinkers according to reliable estimates, precisely because alcohol is so cheaply available and its excessive use so positively encouraged. International evidence shows that educative approaches achieve very little, especially within heavy-drinking cultures like ours. It is simply unrealistic to expect intoxicated or addicted individuals to be their most responsible selves.

Advertising

New Zealand allows the alcohol industry to regulate its own advertising. This makes no sense because, obviously, the goals of the Government (to reduce alcohol consumption and delay its uptake) are not the same as those of the alcohol or advertising industries (to sell as much as possible).

Several industry submissions, such as Diageo NZ’s, claimed voluntary codes were “working well” because there are few complaints and many that are made are not upheld. However, we assert this is largely because the codes are so vague they easily circumvented by clever advertising companies.

One has to wonder how the Tui girls, the backyard DB Export party and “cracking a Woody” fit with fuzzy terms like “high standard of social responsibility”, “responsibility and moderation”, or not having “strong or evident appeal to minors”.

Echoing the tobacco companies once again, submissions by Lion Nathan and others claimed alcohol advertising doesn’t increase consumption, but is only there to “influence consumers to choose particular brands”.

Outside of the tobacco and alcohol industries we can’t imagine any other business making the disingenuous and nonsensical claim that they did not want their advertising to encourage increased consumption, or that it didn’t do so.

The fact is there is clear evidence associating alcohol advertising with earlier and heavier drinking. To obfuscate around this with half-truths is completely irresponsible.

Discounting booze

Despite the wide availability of deplorably cheap booze, the industry was quick to deny it is heavily discounting alcohol, and said price has no effect on how much New Zealanders drink. Both claims fly in the face of common sense and the simple laws of economics.

Official Statistics NZ data indicate alcohol consumption increased nearly 10 percent between 1998 and 2009. This coincided with further relaxation of our liquor laws, including allowing beer to be sold in supermarkets. While they ardently deny they sell alcohol below cost to attract custom (loss leading), supermarkets’ incredible buying power means they can sell alcohol for much less than licensed venue owners can buy it wholesale.

This, along with a proliferation of corner-store off-licences, has led to an extremely competitive market with low margins, so anyone selling alcohol has to sell a lot to make a decent profit. Whether it likes to admit it or not, much of the industry is up to its neck in reducing alcohol prices to ‘move stock’.

Any high school economics student will tell you that if a product is cheap and accessible, people will consume more of it. There is also plenty of evidence that younger and heavier drinkers tend to choose cheaper products. That’s just common sense too.

The industry’s claim that increasing excise taxes to make alcohol less affordable punishes responsible drinkers is yet another red herring. A bottle of wine going up a few dollars would have little effect on moderate drinkers, enjoying a glass or two now and again. But it would reduce what binge drinkers could afford to buy, delay drinking uptake by the young and help to stop moderate drinkers becoming heavy drinkers. This would actually reduce the financial burden on all tax-payers.

Spirits in supermarkets

Submissions by Diageo NZ and others also called for spirits to be sold in supermarkets, arguing that “alcohol is alcohol”, and consumers should be able to buy whisky wherever they buy wine.

Considering the obvious contribution reduced wine and beer prices at supermarkets have made to our national drinking problem, however, one shudders to think what effect much cheaper spirits would also have.

To increase the availability of alcohol in its strongest form right now would be an insane and retrograde step. This is so obvious that the Government is very unlikely to even consider it, but it is further evidence of how far some within the industry would go to increase their yearly profits.

Just like tobacco, alcohol is a legal, highly profitable drug which can cause considerable harm. With the Alcohol Reform Bill we have an opportunity to begin reversing the changes over the last two decades that have normalised excessive drinking.

It’s time for our politicians to listen to the communities and those who daily face the consequences of alcohol misuse. The bill must be progressed without further delay, and without regard for the protestations of an industry in whose interests it is to keep us all drinking at alarming and harmful levels.

By Ross Bell and Rebecca Williams - Our Turn to Shout

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